If you’ve petted lion cubs you’ll hopefully know it’s a contentious activity. Now authorities want the country to move away from captive breeding operations generally and instead manage animals more efficiently in game reserves.

Minister of forestry, fisheries and the environment, Barbara Creecy said as much when she released a long-awaited report on the issue earlier this month. The 582-page report was put together by a 25-member panel, which she set up in 2019 to review policies relating to the management, breeding, hunting and trade of lions, rhinos, leopards, and elephants. 

Government plans to stop granting permits to breed, keep, hunt or interact with lions in captivity and it will revoke current breeding permits. It’s been met with uproar from private breeding industries. Meanwhile some conservationists think the report recommendations don’t go far enough, saying leopards for instance will continue being hunted despite their dangerously low numbers. This is a pretty big issue so we’ve rounded up the for and against for the rules along with our take.

What those for the new rules are saying 

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment said more people spoke out against the abusive and inhumane breeding practices lions are subjected to, including their poor and confined living conditions, speed-breeding for tourism  and the link to legal and illegal trade in lion bones. Lions held in captivity are later sold to trophy hunters to support canned hunting, while their bones are exported to Asia for medicinal purposes. The department also added that the ongoing practice of breeding lions and rhinos bodes poorly for our conservation and tourism. Groups have advocated phasing out the commercialisation of the cats citing risks of animal welfare concerns, fragmented policies and unregulated nature within the industry plus the threat to the wild lion population from poaching. The panel also recommended the phasing out of breeding rhinos in captivity, but this was not welcomed. 

What those against are saying 

The ban on captive breeding could increase the underground bone trade as lions would silently be killed to keep that industry going. South African conservationist Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes said activists are concerned about the welfare of lions, but if bone trade is banned, breeders won’t have money, and those who do still keep their animals, will have no money to feed them. He added that some lion owners may euthanise their lions and seek out the markets for body parts to recoup some of their losses! 😢 He said it would be better for the industry to be regulated. The South African National Biodiversity Institute said most of South Africa’s estimated 2 500 “wild” lions are in the Kruger and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, while about 8 000 to 12 000 lions have been bred in captivity for commercial use.

Owners of private rhinos may file a law-suit against the report saying that the trade in captive rhino horn should not be approved until an investigation into the industry has concluded. Owners say they do not welcome the report because it could do more harm than good for the rhinos in captivity as releasing them into the wild could increase the likelihood of poaching, adding that if it wasn’t for private breeding and rhino farmers, rhinos would be extinct. Private rhino owners said that the country needs to move away from captive breeding operations and instead manage animals more efficiently in game reserves, adding that the ban would also strip them of their ecotourism revenue. TimesLive reported that 9,000 rhinos in SA are privately owned and in the last decade, the population has grown by as much at 500%. Whereas government rhino populations – those in national parks – have declined by as much as 70%. This is not just a result of poaching, but drought as well.

Those against the new rules also includes those who don’t think it goes far enough. Leopards are a case of concern. South Africa has at worst South Africa had 3 500 leopards and, at best, between 5 000 and 6 000, conservation NGO Landmark Foundation told Mail and Guardian. They said a decision needs to be made on the future of leopards, which have been sold for slaughter. 

Our take

It’s a highly contested and complex issue. The fact is the current rules need to be changed: the idea that big game trophy hunters come to our country to shoot captive lions is stomach-churning and, as the report notes, negatively impacts the larger ecotourism industry. On the other hand, if private breeders are more successful in keeping rhino numbers up, for instance, we need to allow them to continue. The solution is probably somewhere in the middle, as we do need better legislation to govern the private breeding programmes. For now, stay clear of those lion cub pettings.